I like to think of the genres of art as different languages. Each genre—dance, music, painting, poetry, architecture, etc. —has its own grammar, its own sensory dominion, its own expertise, method, rigor, citation. Often the thrust of a painting can be translated into poetry (e.g. Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”); the stoicism of a novel translated into the timbre of opera (e.g. Philip Glass’s Waiting for the Barbarians). Some pieces of art are so language-specific that accurate translations are hopeless: imagine what Ulysses would look like as a painting, a photograph, a curated exhibit or an experimental film. There are new pidgin/hybrid arts that evolve every year, each with its own slang, and some of these dialects have grown to become major languages (e.g. graffiti, slam poetry, R&B) while others live to see their cultural importance shrink to near-obscurity (e.g. flipbooks, Polaroid photographs, royal portraiture). Someone who becomes fluent in a few different arts can more easily learn the next—which may partly explain the abundance of ‘poly-lingual’ artists—and there are good reasons to believe in a critical period for the acquisition of artistic communication.
There’s a famous quip that many music reviewers know: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The source of the quote is mostly unknown, though its anonymity hasn’t stopped people from crediting it to figures as various as Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Elvis Costello and Thelonious Monk. Since I spend most of my time with The Chronicle writing music reviews and much of my free time writing poems inspired by and according to the method of jazz, that quote has brought upon me all five stages of grief. Music and poetry—though they both care about the aural and the oral, though they both employ crescendo, gesture, improvisation—are, no matter how hard one tries, very distant languages. Music and journalism are about as difficult to translate as two languages can be—think Chinese and Creole; it’s a task that’s almost as laughably hopeless as food writing. (I’d gladly dance about architecture before I’d pick up a food review.) Anyone who gets her feet wet writing music criticism quickly realizes that it’s best to avoid nuanced, temporal explanations of listening experience—that would require a few thousand words per minute. Instead a writer must give enough historical/cultural/ethical/aesthetic contexts to open up the music to certain concealed joys, to allow it to enter conversations with comparable artworks. As is true of poetry, the task of a music review does not require propositional or even grammatical statements. It can function by presenting a mood and a vocabulary with which to pry open music’s tasty mollusks. Of all of the writing I’ve published in The Chronicle, the sentences that I’m most proud of are the very sentences that arouse the ire of my editors, phrases that are anti-journalistic, phrases that turn like dimes.
Because, to put it straight, the mood of music is not the mood of words, especially not the mood of written words, let alone their mode. The grammar of music is not a grammar that shies with disgust from the misplaced modifier, the double comma, or the run-on; the grammar of music would make Strunk and White may roll over in their graves. A journalism that values science more than art, a journalism that wants objectivity, contestability and methodology—and we need that kind of journalism, probably more than we need good journalism about art—isn’t one that marries with the experience of music.
Of course, most music reviews are written with the ear and eye of the standard journalist, and it’s hard to argue with those who write that way. It’s hard to ask anyone to become a good dancer of architecture, let alone a great one. But there’s something about the challenge of finding and creating a vocabulary for music that I find endlessly inspiring. I know that writing music reviews has made my poetry better. I believe that music writing has improved my philosophy essays. There is something about wording the inarticulate—a process that all three of these languages share—that I’ve grown to find inescapable and grown to love.
In this issue of Recess you’ll find a handful of music reviews—two of them, for the first time in many weeks, judged albums as worthy of five stars—alongside a few film reviews. If the quantity of readers of an article is to be judged by its Facebook likes—which, despite its flaws, is a passable measure—then I’d be surprised if the readership for the reviews is as large as that of our other articles. I’ve always had a greater response when I write features and editor’s notes. If The Chronicle were a newspaper that cached out the value of its writing and its writers using tallies of site-visits, then I’m sure I would already have been asked to publish fewer reviews in favor of wider coverage of local Durham artwork and Duke student work. And, in some ways, that would be a very good thing—not only for readership numbers. But I know that when I look back at what I’ve written, the music reviews are always the pieces I think of first. They’re the pieces I’ve been most challenged by, the pieces I re-read as failures or lucky successes, the pieces with phrases I can remember months later without much effort. I keep assigning music reviews because I want other students to have the opportunity to work on wording the inarticulate and to make the joy of music somehow more joyous by virtue of its translation.